Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

            When reviewing exploitation films or B-movies, there is a gray that makes it difficult describing how genuinely good they are without appearing hyperbolic or sarcastic. This is partially due to the idea that the budget equates to the effort put into a film, which is a fallacy.  For example, Assault on Precinct 13 is a cheaply made B-movie that is as awesome as any films that Clint Eastwood was making at the time, even Dirty Harry. With only $100,000, little experience but complete creative control, director John Carpenter proved with Assault on Precinct 13 that anyone can create a great film in spite of such limitations.
           The story is very much like every gang exploitation film; some poor sap kills the wrong guy, he gets chased into the 13th Precinct by a horde of thugs and its up to the rookie cop to protect him until reinforcements arrive, insert vague social commentary. The story is not much but the reason why this film is so great is Carpenter’s sense of structure and film tradition.  Carpenter is the horror director who famously made Halloween and The Thing, which are two films that are known for having a fantastical view on evil and for being as intense as a hot pressure cooker. This intensity started here in Assault on Precinct 13 as the plot meticulously builds up the characters and the moments leading to the titular event for nearly all of first half of the movie, which then explodes with fury.
            The horror elements aside, Assault on Precinct 13 is really a throwback to the westerns of the 1950s like High Noon and Rio Bravo.  The black hats are now black leather vests and the white hats are now beige police uniforms. This should make for a simplistic mess but the cast is used well and they sell the hell out of the premise. Austin Stoker proves to be a powerful lead actor who could have easily replaced John Wayne if Method Acting was not in vogue at the time. The highlight though is Laurie Zimmer who plays the archetypical Hawksian woman but unlike most of them she not afraid to use a gun; this sounds cliché but for 1976 that was very surprising.
            If there is any fault to this film it is that there are moments where the budget puts a strain on this movie.  Assault on Precinct 13 cost about $100,000 to make; for perspective, Sam Raimi made his infamously low budget horror film Evil Dead with $350,000, he literally could have made Assault on Precinct 13 3½ times.  There are moments where they obviously cut corners, particularly in one shootout montage where they seemingly reuse shots, which really slows the pace down.  On the upside, the fact that the majority of the film is confined to a single set is a brilliant trick to bring in claustrophobic tension. For all the gun-ho posturing these characters have, there is a genuine sense of doom before the climax even begins.  The film also has a sense of discipline compared to the campy alternatives like Evil Dead and Rats: Night of Terror. The film never overreaches nor quits, it simply focuses on creating some great action.    
            Assault on Precinct 13 is a film that should not be as good as it is yet it is undeniably sophisticated and badass.  John Carpenter, as raw as he was, knew his strengths and studied his inspirations in order to make some great old school thrills.  Laurie Zimmer and Austin Stoker prove to be wonderful actors who deserved better careers.  Not only is this film must-see, it proves that creativity is a more essential tool than a mountain of money.  Actually, given that the film industry would soon nearly crash due excessive spending on flops like Heaven’s Gate, one would wish that Hollywood provided budget limits earlier.

(Available on Blu-ray and DVD, I recommend the Shout! Factory Blu-ray since it looks the best and has some great extras featuring the surviving actors)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rats: Night of Terror

           There are filmmakers who are studied and admired best of their ability to create great works of art; Bruno Mattei is not one of those kinds of filmmakers.  As the director trashy classics such as Strike Commando, SS Girls and Robowar, Bruno Mattei’s most watchable film is arguably Rats: Night of Terror.  The plot is simple enough, it is a post-apocalyptic horror film about a sci-fi biker gang that travels to a deserted city; and then suddenly, they are attacked by thousands of hyper-intelligent flesh eating rats! The plot is made of classic horror B-movie material but even then Bruno Mattei somehow makes it denser that should have been.
            The biggest flaw of Rats: Night of Terror, which there are many, is the weak attempts by Bruno Mattei and his writers to improve the film with things like profundity.  The film has a bizarre scrolling text prologue that is about the divide between dirty surface dwellers and the rich underground people of this post apocalyptic landscape; this would be fine if the film went beyond being a Birds or Night of the Living Dead knock off, instead it is rather pointless.  A couple of characters ramble on about the religious and philosophical implications of their predicament.  Finally it ends with a twist that is so baffling it could fit perfectly in a Twilight Zone parody sketch on Futurama.  Bruno Mattei attempts to make this film “substantial” are admirable but it is mostly half-baked moralizing; then again, when more effort was put into making a rat tunneling realistically out of a woman’s mouth, one wonders what Sigmund Freud would have thought of this film.
            With all that being said, the film has some merits, mostly unintentional merits but it effective nonetheless.  For one, the rats are genuinely creepy in this film with their beady red eyes and sneaky demeanor.  The film is surprisingly well paced which means is some actual tension at times.  Even though Rats: Night of Terror look fine for B-movie, its best qualities come from the fact it is just plain silly. The acting is filled with enough ham and cheese to make William Shatner jealous. Everyone looks like they going to a Billy Idol concert.  The English dub is loaded with bizarre phrases like “this machine needs a kick in the balls!” The film gives up on the “intelligent rat” idea in favor of just literally pouring rats onto the poor actors but it leads to some cool gory moments.
            While Rats: Night of Terror is a great film to watch with friends who like to riff on bad movies; given that it is more competently made than films like The Room, it is surprisingly easy to watch.  There are plot moments that would kill pace of any film like this but there is enough B-movie hilarity and genuine thrills to keep the momentum moving.  It is a fun experience to watch and would be great as part of a double feature with Night of the Lepus or The Killer Shrews.

(Rats: Night of Terror is available on DVD, which is half-off on as of this writing)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Last Retrospective of 2013

            While the word “selfie” was Oxford’s word of the year “visceral” is the defining word for this year in film. Many of the best films of 2013 were more focused on striking a certain emotional chord in the most potent way possible rather than dabble into ambiguities or complex riddles like There Will Be Blood or Zero Dark Thirty.  This is not to say that the films are dumber than average year, if anything it shows a sense of confidence in the filmmakers’ understanding of their topic, enough to explain clearly. In short, the best films of 2013 familiar but nuanced, which is fascinating because it shows film progressing as a creative medium. Anyway, the movies:

*Gravity– This was arguably the best film that I have ever seen in a movie theater; that being stated though, I am not sure how it would hold up in a home theater system, which is what this blog is all about, more or less.  So with this in mind, I will keep this one on hold until I find a Blu-ray to review.  If it holds up, it is my number one but until then I will have to taint it with the dreaded asterisk.

The Act of Killing– In the years of 1965-1966, there was an anti-communist purge, which resulted in the slaughter of 500,000 people. Notably, some of the killers were gangsters who hated communists but loved going to the movies. In 2013, director Joshua Oppenheimer visited these gangsters and suggests that they reenact their “glory days” in a Hollywood fashion. This is a sprawling, shockingly violent, and personal monster of a documentary that truly looks at villains during their most naked moments.
            As a casual viewer, the subjects of The Act of Killing give a definite sense of culture shock. For example, the killers are considered to be native heroes whereas every other country would consider them to be war criminals. It also points out how far reaching Hollywood films actually are as the killers talk about their love of westerns, musicals, and gangster films; then suddenly, the film cuts to them reenacting a torture in the style of a James Cagney gangster flick.
            However, what really makes the film transcend from fascinating into greatness is how the subjects take the project so personally that they start thinking introspectively. Small moments like commenting on how he would not have worn white pants to an execution evolve into discussions of denial, flimsy justifications and regret… possibly. The film becomes a Dorian Gray-like experience as time progresses. The Act of Killing is a raw film to watch, definitely not for the faint of heart, but the fact that it shows how film can affect one’s perspective, in many more ways than one, makes it a required viewing experience. In The Act of Killing, film is not just entertainment but a powerful weapon that is prone to misuse and backfire.